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A Grey Sleeve

I


"It looks as if it might rain this afternoon," remarked the lieutenant
of artillery.

"So it does," the infantry captain assented. He glanced casually at the
sky. When his eyes had lowered to the green-shadowed landscape before
him, he said fretfully: "I wish those fellows out yonder would quit
pelting at us. They've been at it since noon."

At the edge of a grove of maples, across wide fields, there
occasionally appeared little puffs of smoke of a dull hue in this gloom
of sky which expressed an impending rain. The long wave of blue and
steel in the field moved uneasily at the eternal barking of the far-away
sharpshooters, and the men, leaning upon their rifles, stared at the
grove of maples. Once a private turned to borrow some tobacco from a
comrade in the rear rank, but, with his hand still stretched out, he
continued to twist his head and glance at the distant trees. He was
afraid the enemy would shoot him at a time when he was not looking.

Suddenly the artillery officer said: "See what's coming!"

Along the rear of the brigade of infantry a column of cavalry was
sweeping at a hard gallop. A lieutenant, riding some yards to the right
of the column, bawled furiously at the four troopers just at the rear of
the colours. They had lost distance and made a little gap, but at the
shouts of the lieutenant they urged their horses forward. The bugler,
careering along behind the captain of the troop, fought and tugged like
a wrestler to keep his frantic animal from bolting far ahead of the
column.

On the springy turf the innumerable hoofs thundered in a swift storm of
sound. In the brown faces of the troopers their eyes were set like bits
of flashing steel.

The long line of the infantry regiments standing at ease underwent a
sudden movement at the rush of the passing squadron. The foot soldiers
turned their heads to gaze at the torrent of horses and men.

The yellow folds of the flag fluttered back in silken, shuddering
waves, as if it were a reluctant thing. Occasionally a giant spring of a
charger would rear the firm and sturdy figure of a soldier suddenly head
and shoulders above his comrades. Over the noise of the scudding hoofs
could be heard the creaking of leather trappings, the jingle and clank
of steel, and the tense, low-toned commands or appeals of the men to
their horses; and the horses were mad with the headlong sweep of this
movement. Powerful under jaws bent back and straightened, so that the
bits were clamped as rigidly as vices upon the teeth, and glistening
necks arched in desperate resistance to the hands at the bridles.
Swinging their heads in rage at the granite laws of their lives, which
compelled even their angers and their ardours to chosen directions and
chosen faces, their flight was as a flight of harnessed demons.

The captain's bay kept its pace at the head of the squadron with the
lithe bounds of a thoroughbred, and this horse was proud as a chief at
the roaring trample of his fellows behind him. The captain's glance was
calmly upon the grove of maples whence the sharpshooters of the enemy
had been picking at the blue line. He seemed to be reflecting. He
stolidly rose and fell with the plunges of his horse in all the
indifference of a deacon's figure seated plumply in church. And it
occurred to many of the watching infantry to wonder why this officer
could remain imperturbable and reflective when his squadron was
thundering and swarming behind him like the rushing of a flood.

The column swung in a sabre-curve toward a break in a fence, and dashed
into a roadway. Once a little plank bridge was encountered, and the
sound of the hoofs upon it was like the long roll of many drums. An old
captain in the infantry turned to his first lieutenant and made a
remark, which was a compound of bitter disparagement of cavalry in
general and soldierly admiration of this particular troop.

Suddenly the bugle sounded, and the column halted with a jolting
upheaval amid sharp, brief cries. A moment later the men had tumbled
from their horses, and, carbines in hand, were running in a swarm toward
the grove of maples. In the road one of every four of the troopers was
standing with braced legs, and pulling and hauling at the bridles of
four frenzied horses.

The captain was running awkwardly in his boots. He held his sabre low,
so that the point often threatened to catch in the turf. His yellow hair
ruffled out from under his faded cap. "Go in hard now!" he roared, in a
voice of hoarse fury. His face was violently red.

The troopers threw themselves upon the grove like wolves upon a great
animal. Along the whole front of woods there was the dry crackling of
musketry, with bitter, swift flashes and smoke that writhed like stung
phantoms. The troopers yelled shrilly and spanged bullets low into the
foliage.

For a moment, when near the woods, the line almost halted. The men
struggled and fought for a time like swimmers encountering a powerful
current. Then with a supreme effort they went on again. They dashed
madly at the grove, whose foliage from the high light of the field was
as inscrutable as a wall.

Then suddenly each detail of the calm trees became apparent, and with a
few more frantic leaps the men were in the cool gloom of the woods.
There was a heavy odour as from burned paper. Wisps of grey smoke wound
upward. The men halted and, grimy, perspiring, and puffing, they
searched the recesses of the woods with eager, fierce glances. Figures
could be seen flitting afar off. A dozen carbines rattled at them in an
angry volley.

During this pause the captain strode along the line, his face lit with
a broad smile of contentment. "When he sends this crowd to do anything,
I guess he'll find we do it pretty sharp," he said to the grinning
lieutenant.

"Say, they didn't stand that rush a minute, did they?" said the
subaltern. Both officers were profoundly dusty in their uniforms, and
their faces were soiled like those of two urchins.

Out in the grass behind them were three tumbled and silent forms.

Presently the line moved forward again. The men went from tree to tree
like hunters stalking game. Some at the left of the line fired
occasionally, and those at the right gazed curiously in that direction.
The men still breathed heavily from their scramble across the field.

Of a sudden a trooper halted and said: "Hello! there's a house!" Every
one paused. The men turned to look at their leader.

The captain stretched his neck and swung his head from side to side.
"By George, it is a house!" he said.

Through the wealth of leaves there vaguely loomed the form of a large
white house. These troopers, brown-faced from many days of campaigning,
each feature of them telling of their placid confidence and courage,
were stopped abruptly by the appearance of this house. There was some
subtle suggestion--some tale of an unknown thing--which watched them
from they knew not what part of it.

A rail fence girded a wide lawn of tangled grass. Seven pines stood
along a drive-way which led from two distant posts of a vanished gate.
The blue-clothed troopers moved forward until they stood at the fence
peering over it.

The captain put one hand on the top rail and seemed to be about to
climb the fence, when suddenly he hesitated, and said in a low voice:
"Watson, what do you think of it?"

The lieutenant stared at the house. "Derned if I know!" he replied.

The captain pondered. It happened that the whole company had turned a
gaze of profound awe and doubt upon this edifice which confronted them.
The men were very silent.

At last the captain swore and said: "We are certainly a pack of fools.
Derned old deserted house halting a company of Union cavalry, and making
us gape like babies!"

"Yes, but there's something--something----" insisted the subaltern in a
half stammer.

"Well, if there's 'something--something' in there, I'll get it out,"
said the captain. "Send Sharpe clean around to the other side with about
twelve men, so we will sure bag your 'something--something,' and I'll
take a few of the boys and find out what's in the d----d old thing!"

He chose the nearest eight men for his "storming party," as the
lieutenant called it. After he had waited some minutes for the others to
get into position, he said "Come ahead" to his eight men, and climbed
the fence.

The brighter light of the tangled lawn made him suddenly feel
tremendously apparent, and he wondered if there could be some mystic
thing in the house which was regarding this approach. His men trudged
silently at his back. They stared at the windows and lost themselves in
deep speculations as to the probability of there being, perhaps, eyes
behind the blinds--malignant eyes, piercing eyes.

Suddenly a corporal in the party gave vent to a startled exclamation,
and half threw his carbine into position. The captain turned quickly,
and the corporal said: "I saw an arm move the blinds--an arm with a grey
sleeve!"

"Don't be a fool, Jones, now," said the captain sharply.

"I swear t'--" began the corporal, but the captain silenced him.

When they arrived at the front of the house, the troopers paused, while
the captain went softly up the front steps. He stood before the large
front door and studied it. Some crickets chirped in the long grass, and
the nearest pine could be heard in its endless sighs. One of the
privates moved uneasily, and his foot crunched the gravel. Suddenly the
captain swore angrily and kicked the door with a loud crash. It flew open.


II


The bright lights of the day flashed into the old house when the
captain angrily kicked open the door. He was aware of a wide hallway,
carpeted with matting and extending deep into the dwelling. There was
also an old walnut hat-rack and a little marble-topped table with a vase
and two books upon it. Farther back was a great, venerable fireplace
containing dreary ashes.

But directly in front of the captain was a young girl. The flying open
of the door had obviously been an utter astonishment to her, and she
remained transfixed there in the middle of the floor, staring at the
captain with wide eyes.

She was like a child caught at the time of a raid upon the cake. She
wavered to and fro upon her feet, and held her hands behind her. There
were two little points of terror in her eyes, as she gazed up at the
young captain in dusty blue, with his reddish, bronze complexion, his
yellow hair, his bright sabre held threateningly.

These two remained motionless and silent, simply staring at each other
for some moments.

The captain felt his rage fade out of him and leave his mind limp. He
had been violently angry, because this house had made him feel hesitant,
wary. He did not like to be wary. He liked to feel confident, sure. So
he had kicked the door open, and had been prepared, to march in like a
soldier of wrath.

But now he began, for one thing, to wonder if his uniform was so dusty
and old in appearance. Moreover, he had a feeling that his face was
covered with a compound of dust, grime, and perspiration. He took a step
forward and said: "I didn't mean to frighten you." But his voice was
coarse from his battle-howling. It seemed to him to have hempen fibres
in it.

The girl's breath came in little, quick gasps, and she looked at him as
she would have looked at a serpent.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," he said again.

The girl, still with her hands behind her, began to back away.

"Is there any one else in the house?" he went on, while slowly
following her. "I don't wish to disturb you, but we had a fight with
some rebel skirmishers in the woods, and I thought maybe some of them
might have come in here. In fact, I was pretty sure of it. Are there any
of them here?"

The girl looked at him and said, "No!" He wondered why extreme
agitation made the eyes of some women so limpid and bright.

"Who is here besides yourself?"

By this time his pursuit had driven her to the end of the hall, and she
remained there with her back to the wall and her hands still behind her.
When she answered this question, she did not look at him but down at the
floor. She cleared her voice and then said: "There is no one here."

"No one?"

She lifted her eyes to him in that appeal that the human being must
make even to falling trees, crashing boulders, the sea in a storm, and
said, "No, no, there is no one here." He could plainly see her tremble.

Of a sudden he bethought him that she continually kept her hands behind
her. As he recalled her air when first discovered, he remembered she
appeared precisely as a child detected at one of the crimes of
childhood. Moreover, she had always backed away from him. He thought now
that she was concealing something which was an evidence of the presence
of the enemy in the house.

"What are you holding behind you?" he said suddenly.

She gave a little quick moan, as if some grim hand had throttled her.

"What are you holding behind you?"

"Oh, nothing--please. I am not holding anything behind me; indeed I'm
not."

"Very well. Hold your hands out in front of you, then."

"Oh, indeed, I'm not holding anything behind me. Indeed I'm not."

"Well," he began. Then he paused, and remained for a moment dubious.
Finally, he laughed. "Well, I shall have my men search the house,
anyhow. I'm sorry to trouble you, but I feel sure that there is some one
here whom we want." He turned to the corporal, who with the other men
was gaping quietly in at the door, and said: "Jones, go through the
house."

As for himself, he remained planted in front of the girl, for she
evidently did not dare to move and allow him to see what she held so
carefully behind her back. So she was his prisoner.

The men rummaged around on the ground floor of the house. Sometimes the
captain called to them, "Try that closet," "Is there any cellar?" But
they found no one, and at last they went trooping toward the stairs
which led to the second floor.

But at this movement on the part of the men the girl uttered a cry--a
cry of such fright and appeal that the men paused. "Oh, don't go up
there! Please don't go up there!--ple-ease! There is no one there!
Indeed--indeed there is not! Oh, ple-ease!"

"Go on, Jones," said the captain calmly.

The obedient corporal made a preliminary step, and the girl bounded
toward the stairs with another cry.

As she passed him, the captain caught sight of that which she had
concealed behind her back, and which she had forgotten in this supreme
moment. It was a pistol.

She ran to the first step, and standing there, faced the men, one hand
extended with perpendicular palm, and the other holding the pistol at
her side. "Oh, please, don't go up there! Nobody is there--indeed, there
is not! P-l-e-a-s-e!" Then suddenly she sank swiftly down upon the step,
and, huddling forlornly, began to weep in the agony and with the
convulsive tremors of an infant. The pistol fell from her fingers and
rattled down to the floor.

The astonished troopers looked at their astonished captain. There was a
short silence.

Finally, the captain stooped and picked up the pistol. It was a heavy
weapon of the army pattern. He ascertained that it was empty.

He leaned toward the shaking girl, and said gently: "Will you tell me
what you were going to do with this pistol?"

He had to repeat the question a number of times, but at last a muffled
voice said, "Nothing."

"Nothing!" He insisted quietly upon a further answer. At the tender
tones of the captain's voice, the phlegmatic corporal turned and winked
gravely at the man next to him.

"Won't you tell me?"

The girl shook her head.

"Please tell me!"

The silent privates were moving their feet uneasily and wondering how
long they were to wait.

The captain said: "Please, won't you tell me?"

Then this girl's voice began in stricken tones half coherent, and amid
violent sobbing: "It was grandpa's. He--he--he said he was going to
shoot anybody who came in here--he didn't care if there were thousands
of 'em. And--and I know he would, and I was afraid they'd kill him. And
so--and--so I stole away his pistol--and I was going to hide it when
you--you--you kicked open the door."

The men straightened up and looked at each other. The girl began to
weep again.

The captain mopped his brow. He peered down at the girl. He mopped his
brow again. Suddenly he said: "Ah, don't cry like that."

He moved restlessly and looked down at his boots. He mopped his brow
again.

Then he gripped the corporal by the arm and dragged him some yards back
from the others. "Jones," he said, in an intensely earnest voice, "will
you tell me what in the devil I am going to do?"

The corporal's countenance became illuminated with satisfaction at
being thus requested to advise his superior officer. He adopted an air
of great thought, and finally said: "Well, of course, the feller with
the grey sleeve must be upstairs, and we must get past the girl and up
there somehow. Suppose I take her by the arm and lead her--"

"What!" interrupted the captain from between his clinched teeth. As he
turned away from the corporal, he said fiercely over his shoulder: "You
touch that girl and I'll split your skull!"


III


The corporal looked after his captain with an expression of mingled
amazement, grief, and philosophy. He seemed to be saying to himself that
there unfortunately were times, after all, when one could not rely upon
the most reliable of men. When he returned to the group he found the
captain bending over the girl and saying: "Why is it that you don't want
us to search upstairs?"

The girl's head was buried in her crossed arms. Locks of her hair had
escaped from their fastenings, and these fell upon her shoulder.

"Won't you tell me?"

The corporal here winked again at the man next to him.

"Because," the girl moaned--"because--there isn't anybody up there."

The captain at last said timidly: "Well, I'm afraid--I'm afraid we'll
have to----"

The girl sprang to her feet again, and implored him with her hands. She
looked deep into his eyes with her glance, which was at this time like
that of the fawn when it says to the hunter, "Have mercy upon me!"

These two stood regarding each other. The captain's foot was on the
bottom step, but he seemed to be shrinking. He wore an air of being
deeply wretched and ashamed. There was a silence!

Suddenly the corporal said in a quick, low tone: "Look out, captain!"

All turned their eyes swiftly toward the head of the stairs. There had
appeared there a youth in a grey uniform. He stood looking coolly down
at them. No word was said by the troopers. The girl gave vent to a
little wail of desolation, "O Harry!"

He began slowly to descend the stairs. His right arm was in a white
sling, and there were some fresh blood-stains upon the cloth. His face
was rigid and deathly pale, but his eyes flashed like lights. The girl
was again moaning in an utterly dreary fashion, as the youth came slowly
down toward the silent men in blue.

Six steps from the bottom of the flight he halted and said: "I reckon
it's me you're looking for."

The troopers had crowded forward a trifle and, posed in lithe, nervous
attitudes, were watching him like cats. The captain remained unmoved. At
the youth's question he merely nodded his head and said, "Yes."

The young man in grey looked down at the girl, and then, in the same
even tone which now, however, seemed to vibrate with suppressed fury, he
said: "And is that any reason why you should insult my sister?"

At this sentence, the girl intervened, desperately, between the young
man in grey and the officer in blue. "Oh, don't, Harry, don't! He was
good to me! He was good to me, Harry--indeed he was!"

The youth came on in his quiet, erect fashion, until the girl could
have touched either of the men with her hand, for the captain still
remained with his foot upon the first step. She continually repeated:
"O Harry! O Harry!"

The youth in grey manoeuvred to glare into the captain's face, first
over one shoulder of the girl and then over the other. In a voice that
rang like metal, he said: "You are armed and unwounded, while I have no
weapons and am wounded; but--"

The captain had stepped back and sheathed his sabre. The eyes of these
two men were gleaming fire, but otherwise the captain's countenance was
imperturbable. He said: "You are mistaken. You have no reason to--"

"You lie!"

All save the captain and the youth in grey started in an electric
movement. These two words crackled in the air like shattered glass.
There was a breathless silence.

The captain cleared his throat. His look at the youth contained a
quality of singular and terrible ferocity, but he said in his stolid
tone: "I don't suppose you mean what you say now."

Upon his arm he had felt the pressure of some unconscious little
fingers. The girl was leaning against the wall as if she no longer knew
how to keep her balance, but those fingers--he held his arm very still.
She murmured: "O Harry, don't! He was good to me--indeed he was!"

The corporal had come forward until he in a measure confronted the
youth in grey, for he saw those fingers upon the captain's arm, and he
knew that sometimes very strong men were not able to move hand nor foot
under such conditions.

The youth had suddenly seemed to become weak. He breathed heavily and
clung to the rail. He was glaring at the captain, and apparently
summoning all his will power to combat his weakness. The corporal
addressed him with profound straightforwardness: "Don't you be a derned
fool!" The youth turned toward him so fiercely that the corporal threw
up a knee and an elbow like a boy who expects to be cuffed.

The girl pleaded with the captain. "You won't hurt him, will you? He
don't know what he's saying. He's wounded, you know. Please don't mind
him!"

"I won't touch him," said the captain, with rather extraordinary
earnestness; "don't you worry about him at all. I won't touch him!"

Then he looked at her, and the girl suddenly withdrew her fingers from
his arm.

The corporal contemplated the top of the stairs, and remarked without
surprise: "There's another of 'em coming!"

An old man was clambering down the stairs with much speed. He waved a
cane wildly. "Get out of my house, you thieves! Get out! I won't have
you cross my threshold! Get out!" He mumbled and wagged his head in an
old man's fury. It was plainly his intention to assault them.

And so it occurred that a young girl became engaged in protecting a
stalwart captain, fully armed, and with eight grim troopers at his back,
from the attack of an old man with a walking-stick!

A blush passed over the temples and brow of the captain, and he looked
particularly savage and weary. Despite the girl's efforts, he suddenly
faced the old man.

"Look here," he said distinctly, "we came in because we had been
fighting in the woods yonder, and we concluded that some of the enemy
were in this house, especially when we saw a grey sleeve at the window.
But this young man is wounded, and I have nothing to say to him. I will
even take it for granted that there are no others like him upstairs. We
will go away, leaving your d---d old house just as we found it! And we
are no more thieves and rascals than you are!"

The old man simply roared: "I haven't got a cow nor a pig nor a chicken
on the place! Your soldiers have stolen everything they could carry
away. They have torn down half my fences for firewood. This afternoon
some of your accursed bullets even broke my window panes!"

The girl had been faltering: "Grandpa! O grandpa!"

The captain looked at the girl. She returned his glance from the shadow
of the old man's shoulder. After studying her face a moment, he said:
"Well, we will go now." He strode toward the door, and his men clanked
docilely after him.

At this time there was the sound of harsh cries and rushing footsteps
from without. The door flew open, and a whirlwind composed of blue-
coated troopers came in with a swoop. It was headed by the lieutenant.
"Oh, here you are!" he cried, catching his breath. "We thought----Oh,
look at the girl!"

The captain said intensely: "Shut up, you fool!"

The men settled to a halt with a clash and a bang. There could be heard
the dulled sound of many hoofs outside of the house.

"Did you order up the horses?" inquired the captain.

"Yes. We thought----"

"Well, then, let's get out of here," interrupted the captain morosely.

The men began to filter out into the open air. The youth in grey had
been hanging dismally to the railing of the stairway. He now was
climbing slowly up to the second floor. The old man was addressing
himself directly to the serene corporal.

"Not a chicken on the place!" he cried.

"Well, I didn't take your chickens, did I?"

"No, maybe you didn't, but----"

The captain crossed the hall and stood before the girl in rather a
culprit's fashion. "You are not angry at me, are you?" he asked timidly.

"No," she said. She hesitated a moment, and then suddenly held out her
hand. "You were good to me--and I'm--much obliged."

The captain took her hand, and then he blushed, for he found himself
unable to formulate a sentence that applied in any way to the situation.

She did not seem to heed that hand for a time.

He loosened his grasp presently, for he was ashamed to hold it so long
without saying anything clever. At last, with an air of charging an
intrenched brigade, he contrived to say: "I would rather do anything
than frighten or trouble you."

His brow was warmly perspiring. He had a sense of being hideous in his
dusty uniform and with his grimy face.

She said, "Oh, I'm so glad it was you instead of somebody who might
have--might have hurt brother Harry and grandpa!"

He told her, "I wouldn't have hurt em for anything!"

There was a little silence.

"Well, good-bye!" he said at last.

"Good-bye!"

He walked toward the door past the old man, who was scolding at the
vanishing figure of the corporal. The captain looked back. She had
remained there watching him.

At the bugle's order, the troopers standing beside their horses swung
briskly into the saddle. The lieutenant said to the first sergeant:

"Williams, did they ever meet before?"

"Hanged if I know!"

"Well, say---"

The captain saw a curtain move at one of the windows. He cantered from
his position at the head of the column and steered his horse between two
flower-beds.

"Well, good-bye!"

The squadron trampled slowly past.

"Good-bye!"

They shook hands.

He evidently had something enormously important to say to her, but it
seems that he could not manage it. He struggled heroically. The bay
charger, with his great mystically solemn eyes, looked around the corner
of his shoulder at the girl.

The captain studied a pine tree. The girl inspected the grass beneath
the window. The captain said hoarsely: "I don't suppose--I don't suppose--
I'll ever see you again!"

She looked at him affrightedly and shrank back from the window. He
seemed to have woefully expected a reception of this kind for his
question. He gave her instantly a glance of appeal.

She said: "Why, no, I don't suppose you will."

"Never?"

"Why, no, 'tain't possible. You--you are a--Yankee!"

"Oh, I know it, but----" Eventually he continued: "Well, some day, you
know, when there's no more fighting, we might----" He observed that she
had again withdrawn suddenly into the shadow, so he said: "Well, good-
bye!"

When he held her fingers she bowed her head, and he saw a pink blush
steal over the curves of her cheek and neck.

"Am I never going to see you again?"

She made no reply.

"Never?" he repeated.

After a long time, he bent over to hear a faint reply: "Sometimes--when
there are no troops in the neighbourhood--grandpa don't mind if I--walk
over as far as that old oak tree yonder--in the afternoons."

It appeared that the captain's grip was very strong, for she uttered an
exclamation and looked at her fingers as if she expected to find them
mere fragments. He rode away.

The bay horse leaped a flower-bed. They were almost to the drive, when
the girl uttered a panic-stricken cry.

The captain wheeled his horse violently, and upon his return journey
went straight through a flower-bed.

The girl had clasped her hands. She beseeched him wildly with her eyes.
"Oh, please, don't believe it! I never walk to the old oak tree. Indeed
I don't! I never--never--never walk there."

The bridle drooped on the bay charger's neck. The captain's figure
seemed limp. With an expression of profound dejection and gloom he
stared off at where the leaden sky met the dark green line of the woods.
The long-impending rain began to fall with a mournful patter, drop and
drop. There was a silence.

At last a low voice said, "Well--I might--sometimes I might--perhaps--
but only once in a great while--I might walk to the old tree--in the
afternoons."

Stephen Crane